Herpes

Herpes is a general term used to describe infections caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Oral herpes, caused by HSV-1, presents as cold sores on or in the mouth. Genital herpes, a sexually transmitted disease, is caused by HSV-2. There can, however, be a crossover with a type 1 herpes infection (HSV-1) on the genitals or vice versa.

Herpes is spread by skin contact with the virus, which enters through the outer layer of the skin and causes open lesions. While these lesions can be quite profound, some people can carry the virus without any symptoms. Other people experience recurring herpes outbreaks.

There is no cure for herpes. Outbreaks of both oral and genital herpes can be managed with antiviral therapy. Taking care of your health and managing stress can help to prevent outbreaks.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does herpes look like?

    Herpes presents as open, blistery, or crusted sores in or around the mouth or genitals. The sores may itch or burn and often occur in clusters of small fluid filled sacs that break open and weep.

  • Are cold sores herpes?

    Yes, cold sores are oral herpes, which is commonly caused by herpes simplex virus-1 (HSV-1). HSV-1 is spread through kissing or nonsexual contact with saliva. It commonly first occurs during childhood.

  • How far away is a cure for herpes?

    Currently there is no cure for the herpes simplex virus. The symptoms can be managed with antiviral medications. After decades of research, scientists are slowly making progress. A 2019 study identified a new mechanism that appears to play a role in controlling how the virus alternates between dormant and active stages of infection. This new finding could be the key to a cure.

  • How do you get genital herpes?

    Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection caused by one of two strains of the herpes simplex virus (HSV) that is spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Traditionally, HSV-1 was limited to oral herpes and HSV-2 caused genital herpes, however, slightly more than half of all cases of genital herpes are currently caused by HSV-1, likely due to unprotected oral sex. 

  • How long does a herpes outbreak last?

    The first outbreak of genital herpes may last two to four weeks. Subsequent outbreaks are typically less severe than the initial outbreak and heal more quickly. Recurrent attacks typically only last three to seven days.

  • Can you get herpes from kissing?

    Herpes simplex virus 1, commonly known as oral herpes or cold sores, is spread through contact with the skin or saliva of an infected person, which means, yes, you can get herpes from kissing. Genital herpes, which is caused by herpes simplex virus 2, on the other hand, is not transmitted through kissing, though it can be spread through oral sex.

  • Does herpes itch?

    Yes, herpes outbreaks can cause painful, weeping sores and blisters that can itch and may burn. In fact, the first symptom of an outbreak is often a tingling sensation followed by itching. As the sores break, the itching is replaced with pain. Outbreaks can be treated with oral or topical antiviral medications. Applying a hot or cold compress to the affected area can help to calm the itch.

Key Terms

A Closer Look at Herpes Lesions in the Skin

Explore an interactive model that shows a cross-section of human skin, and how herpes lesions can develop in its outermost section, the epidermis.

Page Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital herpes - CDC fact sheet. Updated August 28, 2017.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital Herpes - CDC fact sheet (detailed). Updated January 31, 2017.

  3. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Cold sores. Updated September 29, 2020.

Additional Reading